No, no, not that kind of pride. The good kind. The kind that nobody objects to, like when you are proud of your kid’s performance in the school play.
Don’t think of this as a long sustained argument. Think of it more as a coherent rant. But I do not rant with beads of sweat lining my brow, or having to wipe spittle off my screen every few minutes. No, I am a jolly ranter. You know, one of the keys to a career as a successful writer is to avoid unintentional connotations in the phrases you choose.
One of my peeves — not a pet peeve, exactly, but it does run around loose on my property — is the kind of criticism, particularly of Protestantism, that tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, Protestantism is supposed to be a thin, wispy, etiolated thing, and on the other it is supposed to be a in-grown, bigoted, blinkered, plausibility structure.
I noticed this recently in a conversation between Ken Myers and John Pinheiro, author of Missionaries of Republicanism. I get some of my best book recommendations from Ken’s Mars Hill Audio, so let’s not let this moment get by us without mentioning that. And Ken is a great guy. At the same time, the interview did reveal something of this internal tension created by thinking that Protestantism is capable of encompassing mutually exclusive errors.
The interview mentioned Lyman Beecher’s book, A Plea for the West. They were also talking about Pinheiro’s book, which was on the religious history of the Mexican-American War. So I got both books and read them, enjoyed them both, but found myself in the awkward position of sympathizing in the wrong directions. I had always regarded the Mexican War as a naked land grab, pure and simple, and now saw (at a minimum), that it was much more complicated than that. There really was a significant religious aspect to the war, and all my default sympathies were with the Protestants. That is to say, with the Americans. It was like reading Beowulf for the first time and sympathizing with Grendel. I trust you sympathize.
Lest anyone rush to remind me that there were some very great sins associated with Manifest Destiny, I do not deny it. But they were the kinds of sins that come from a people with a ROBUST understanding of their own identity, rooted in history, soil, ritual and faith — and in this case it was all Protestant. You cannot say that a people who self-consciously conquered a continent in the name of this ritual were a people who had no sense of ritual. And, with regard to the manifest sins involved, such as the forced relocation of the tribes, we should remember that there was a stiff opposition to that kind of thing from the evangelicals.
So then . . .
“The problem with you North American Protestant evangelicals is that you have no sense of ritual, history, place. Gnostic, I call it.”
“The problem with you North American Protestant evangelicals is that you are too attached to your ways of worshiping, you revere the Constitution and the Founding, and you have never even made it out of Montana in your life. Nativist, I call it.”
This same phenomenon was noted by Chesterton in Orthodoxy, with regard to Christianity generally.
“I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did. The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant . . . This began to be alarming. It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with.”
Steven Wedgeworth ran into this same kind of critique of Protestantism the other day, and thought as little of it as I do.
The charge against the Protestants is that we build no civilizations, and when it is pointed out that we built a very great one, the response is that it is quite a wicked civilization, now that we mention it, full of characteristically Protestant sins. You don’t ever do this, and besides, you do it so badly that it blackens the sky above us.
In short, we are not being critiqued — which we, being sinners, could stand a lot more of — but are rather being steered, which we could stand a lot less of. We are being gamed. If we teach no church history, we are Gnostics. If we teach a distinctively Protestant approach to church history, we are bigots. It turns out that the only solution to these internal contradictions lies on the other side of the Tiber, or the Bosporus. No, no, I reply — it lies on this side of the Ohio. And if you never thought of the Ohio in religious terms, then maybe that’s your problem.
Let us return to Chesterton, my very favorite papist, who once said that a courageous man should be willing to attack any error, no matter how hoary with age it was. But, he added, there were some errors that were too old to patronize. Step back and consider Christendom as a whole. Protestantism is one great wing of that great house, with a magnificent history, and a host of cultural glories. We must never forget that it is a wing that is prosperous, generous, dedicated, and full of beans. Evangelical American Protestants are, in a very important sense, the real deal.
And don’t come and tell me they have warts, because I have spent decades laboring in this understaffed wart removal clinic of mine. I know all about that. Evangelical preachers wear silly T-shirts when they preach, and I wish they wouldn’t, and they do this instead of doing what the historic and more serious wings of Christendom have their preachers do, which is to wear silly hats. But even with all that, there are currently over 100,000 American missionaries, all over the globe, telling people about Jesus Christ. That kind of thing doesn’t come from nowhere.
Not only does it not come from nowhere, if you don’t mind all my negatives, it is not going nowhere either. We have seen enough to know that this is part of how Jesus Christ has determined to save the world. And His plans are perfect, even though His instruments are far from it.